Thursday, August 06, 2009

A Family Six Pack : Part 1 - Auntie Annie

Annie Elizabeth Burnett 1903 - 1978
You may recall that I am working my way through this family portrait, taken in 1917, trying to tell the stories of the six lives it captured. We start on the extreme left with my Auntie Annie.
Annie Elizabeth was born in February 1903, the second daughter of my grandparents Enoch and Harriet Burnett. Like all young working class girls born in Bradford at the start of the twentieth century she was destined for the mill - Bradford was regarded as the world centre of the worsted industry - and by the time this photograph was taken she would have been 14 and already working. On her marriage certificate she is listed as a "worsted warper" and I remember her telling me that during the 1920s she worked at Ickringill's Mill on Legrams Lane, Bradford. The mill had been established in the late nineteenth century by Ira Ickringill, the nephew of a famous Yorkshire Chartist leader, and it was noted for its progressive attitude towards its workers. Annie worked until she was married in 1933 and by all accounts was an outgoing vivacious girl and something of a local beauty. She sang well and had a infectious sense of humour and was a hit in the many amateur concert parties and theatre groups that existed in Bradford at the time. It was in one such group that she no doubt met her future husband, Harry Moore.
Harry was more than a talented amateur, he was such a successful pianist and vocalist that, for a time in the early thirties, he was able to earn a living as a touring professional entertainer. He worked in a series of travelling professional concert parties, leaving his fiancee Annie Elizabeth back in Bradford whilst he took to the road. But in 1933 they married and Harry abandoned the life of a travelling entertainer and settled down to a job as a clerk in a local coal merchant's office.
Annie and Harry were married until Annie died in the late 1970s. They never had children and the marriage was continually under the strain of Harry's weekend work as a pianist in a variety of Bradford Working Men's Clubs and Annie's deteriorating mental health. Annie suffered from depression and found it difficult to be at home alone. Harry worked in the clubs every weekend and was away from his home for long periods of time. As a young teenager I became, for a time in the late 1950s and early 1960s, part of the solution to this problem as I would move in and live with Auntie Annie each weekend. Annie got a companion, I got spoilt. And I got told a host of wonderful stories about her childhood and youth.
There were times though when Auntie Annie was suddenly not around - this was the 1950s and 1960s, a time when it was believed that most mental problems could be cured by a brief spell of electroconvulsive therapy in a mental hospital. I was young and I wasn't aware of what was happening. Nor was I aware of the stories that circulated in the family, accusing Harry of being gay and of abandoning her for weekends of drunken debauchery. By the time I left home and went off to University, Harry was getting old and finding it harder to find work as a pianist. He gave into family pressure and stayed at home. But Annie's physical health rapidly deteriorated and she spent the final few years of her life in a wheelchair.
In many ways in sounds such a sad life : a life cheated of the promise and excitement you can see in the eyes of that fourteen year old girl. But once we die what remains are memories. And I have such wonderful memories of Annie. Of the times she made me laugh until I cried. Of the nights we sat up late together and watched television shows. Of the joy she felt - a joy that was almost palpable - in the company of me and my friends. When I look back, I see her near the end of her life : a life that had been rather dark and unfulfilled. But I still see that spark in her eyes and that half hidden smile : just as she was on that day in 1917.


  1. You could have been one of the most important person in her life as you gave it a happy meaning. These stories always make you wonder how things would be different if she had certain medications from today. Good reading Mr. Burnett.

  2. Thank you LD. Yes, it is one of the few occasions in my life when I really believe I made a difference for someone else.

  3. She gained a companion and you got spoilt...sounds wonderful for both of you!

  4. Lovely tribute to Annie. It's endearing to know how happy she made you and that her memory still lives on in a positive way.

  5. Thanks all. The great thing about the Internet is how it can fix a moment or a memory and it is that moment which will remain. That twinkle, that smile.

  6. For years my father had old photographs of long lost relatives. When my brother moved into his house, he got rid of them and I picked them up. There are scribblings on the back but I haven't had time to explore who they were . .solemn lot but you're sort of inspiring me to dig them out aain and check out their stories. So sad that mental illness was often not even diagnosed in those days. Deaf people were put into institutions because they were thought intellectually impaired. Then here, we have dissolved all our mental institutions and people struggle to exist in the real world. I'm not sure which course is right. I love reading your blog. I was a Lancashire lass myself (don't hold that against me, it's been a long time since the War of the Roses) but my Godfather and the sweetest man in my life lived in Rochdale and I have very fond memories of Fish 'n Chips at Harry Ramsdens even though I was only 10.
    Your Aunty Annie is actually smiling in your photograph. My relatives all looked like someone stuck a carrot up there . .oops.

  7. What a poignant story and what precious memories you have of your aunt. Wonderful reading.

  8. Wonderfully told--I very much like your point about the sadness of her story being an important aspect, but not the only aspect. It's so difficult to see anything even approaching the totality of another's life. You've given us a memorable portrait of your aunt as a real three dimensional person.

  9. Is this the time to admit I worked as a psychiatric nursing assistant for 18 months?

    Witnessed ECT - thought it would be horrific but actually the patient became miles better and crashing depression stopped. Pills, jesus, I only got better myself for realising they were making me worse when they were advised. Took me ages to realise the advice was making me worse. absolutely categoric I'm MILES better for no pills and understanding what makes me up or down.

    Ali's said I'm a house developer.. no I'm not, it's just how we make money these days. Although it is fun. I threw out four offers for D. Phil. phyics and two for kudos teaching posts, I ran a theatre company (I wrote the play) for a year was a financial disaster but not otherwise... with my ex girl-friend coming along I now discover owns half of the London theatres... it's very galling because it was me insisted she must follow this line at the time when she was uncertain.

    And I had to turn down suggestions I might be a concert pianist which has hit home recently because my long-term friend Martin's youngest Tim is a fantastic pianist does recitals... but, but, but. You have to be better than that not to end up as just another teacher.

    Actually, I played better. Long ago. Not the notes, I had this stunning ability of grabbing the audience before I touched the piano. I knew. My intimate friends agreed and were very jealous.

    I think it's very simple, I used to be SO handsome and clean cut before I became a dissolute old man.

  10. Baino : Glad you like the blog, I'm a great fan of yours too. Of course you are forgiven for being a Lancashire lass.
    Kabbalah & John : Thank you so much.
    Edwin : What can I say?

  11. once we die what remain are long as we remember to make them when we live...sounds like you have some great ones.

  12. Sounds so great for you both! What a beautiful story :-)

  13. Anonymous10:00 PM

    A captivating post.I am glad she had you to laugh with and enjoy the company of you and your friends.You've written a lovely tribute to your Auntie Annie.


Black Friar

For a time, during the late 1970s, I had a job leading parties of foreign visitors on tours of historic London pubs. One of my favourite sto...